Founded On Faith?

As Denominational Ties In The United States Fray, The Religious Right Clings To The Idea That The United States Is An Officially ‘Christian Nation’

By Simon Brown

It was June 28, 1787, and the delegates of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia had reached an impasse. At a critical moment in which it seemed the convention was nearing dissolution, 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin made an impassioned plea for all present to join together in prayer as a means of easing the mounting tension.

“[T]he longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this Truth – that God governs in the Affairs of Men,” Franklin said. “I also believe [that] without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.”     

Thanks to Franklin the delegates prayed, which helped them work through their differences and eventually create the U.S. Constitution.

It’s a heartwarming story to many Americans. But it’s just that – a story. Or, more accurately, it’s a fairy tale. In truth, Franklin did make the appeal, but his motion failed and there were no official prayers during the convention. The delegates managed to write the Constitution without assistance from a higher power.

Myths such as this one persist, courtesy of the likes of pseudo-historian David Barton and GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, because the Religious Right cannot accept that the Founding Fathers were not predominantly fundamentalist Christians who intended America to be an officially “Christian nation.” So in the total absence of supporting evidence for their claims, revisionists like Barton invented “Christian nation” stories to fuel their assertion that the modern United States has strayed from its founding principles and all of the nation’s ills could be cured if Americans simply returned to the ideals espoused by the founders – including a reliance on fundamentalist Christianity.

What exactly does the Religious Right mean when it says America was founded as an officially “Christian nation”? To one of the chief peddlers of this myth, the Texas-based Barton, who is not a historian and whose only degree is in Christian education, it means the Founding Fathers constructed a government and society that was “shaped and molded” by Christian principles.

“[The Founders] did want a state religion,” Barton opined during a 2011 interview with Glenn Beck. “That’s why nine out of the 13 colonies had state religions….[And] for 350 years America was described as a Christian nation, and there was a definition that went with it. We have neglected that definition, particularly in the last 15 years; we’ve allowed the left to redefine it to something it never was. But if you say we’re not a Christian nation, you have to throw out 300 court cases that say we are. You have to throw out several hundred laws that say we’re a Christian nation.”

Although Barton failed to cite any specific laws or court cases as evidence for his claims, he very likely had the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1892 Holy Trinity Church v. United States decision in mind. In that case, the high court unanimously said a New York City church should not have been fined $1,000 for violating an immigration law when it hired a new rector from Britain.

The court’s reasoning was that Congress only intended for the law to apply to manual laborers, not professional jobs like clergy. So what does this have to do with “Christian nation” mythology? As then-Americans United Legal Director Steven K. Green explained in a 1989 article for Church & State, one Supreme Court justice added a second rationale for the Holy Trinity verdict. Justice David Brewer pontificated that Congress would never seek to punish a church because the United States is a Christian nation, founded by true believers who created laws that both honor and protect Christianity.

Green said these comments by Brewer are often misunderstood.

“Brewer’s declaration of America’s Christian nationhood is an example of ‘dictum,’” Green wrote. “In legal terms, dictum means that portion of a court’s opinion that has no bearing on the decision. It simply represents a judge’s personal feelings on a particular matter….”

Green added that Brewer’s claim is inconsistent with later Supreme Court rulings and was rarely cited favorably in future cases. “Consequently, Holy Trinity is an anomaly; it stands alone in the constitutional landscape,” Green said.    

The idea that America is a “Christian nation” did not, however, originate with Brewer. In Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding, which is due out this month, Green, now a law professor at Willamette College School of Law in Salem, Oregon, argued that the “Christian nation” myth springs from the 1820s – a time of growing religious piety when a generation that followed the Founding Fathers began to search for a foundational myth that would link the fledgling nation with God in a meaningful way. (For more on Green’s book, see “The Invention of a ‘Christian America,” page 9.)

This activity culminated during the U.S. Civil War when a group known as the National Reform Association tried unsuccessfully to alter the pre­amble of the Constitution to include several references to Christianity and Jesus Christ. One post-war iteration of the proposed language stated: “We, the people of the United States recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior and Lord of all, in order to form a more perfect union….”

Other historians have focused on the more recent escalation of the “Christian nation” tall tale. Princeton University history professor Kevin M. Kruse wrote in his new book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, that the modern iteration of the “Christian nation” idea took off in the early 1930s when a band of business leaders endorsed the concept as a way of fighting back against President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

“Capitalism and Christianity had been mixed by Americans before the New Deal, to be sure,” Kruse said in a recent interview with Salon. “These previous fusions of faith and free enterprise had always stressed their common social characteristics, but starting in the 1930s Christianity and capitalism were fused in a more political context.”

Initially, Kruse argued, business leaders who opposed the New Deal were in a bind. They wanted to stave off government attempts at economic regulation, but they had almost no credibility in the eyes of the public because average Americans blamed them for causing the Great Depression. So they needed outsiders who could repair their image, and the solution to their predicament turned out to be clergy. The legacy of this alliance between business and religion can be seen today, Kruse said, in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores.

“In 2014, the Supreme Court issued its controversial Hobby Lob­by decision, ruling that a corporation could be exempt from the contraception mandates of the Affordable Care Act,” Kruse told Salon. “So we’re currently witnessing a resurgence of that ideology in American law with the idea that corporations not only are capable of having religious beliefs, but that such beliefs make these businesses exempt from the laws of the regulatory state.” (See a review of Kruse’s book on page 20.) 

While the exact origin of the “Chris­tian nation” story may be up for debate, one thing remains clear: The Religious Right’s claims about the Founding Fathers are blatantly false. On at least one occasion, the U.S. government made it clear that it has no official tie to religion. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which was signed by President John Adams – who also signed the Declaration of Independence – states bluntly, “As the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion….”

The writings of many of the founders also support the idea expressed in the Treaty of Tripoli. Perhaps the most significant Founding Father, at least in terms of the Constitution, was James Madison – and he made it clear where he stood on church-state separation.

Madison, widely considered the father of the First Amendment, in an 1819 letter reflected on the development of church-state separation in Virginia, writing, “The civil Government, though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability, and performs its functions with complete success, whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the State.”

Over the years, even members of the clergy have debunked the Religious Right’s “Christian nation” arguments. One of them, Gregory A. Boyd, senior pastor at the evangelical Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., wrote a book in 2006 titled The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church. In it, Boyd rejects “Christian nation” mythology on a theological basis.

“America wasn’t founded as a theocracy,” Boyd told The New York Times in 2006. “America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state.”

Added Boyd, “I am sorry to tell you that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ.”

 But don’t tell any of that to Barton, who has some pretty odd “evidence” to back up his notions about early America, including a bizarre theory that America’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion somehow proves it is a Christian country. 

“And the belief was, hey, you come to a Christian nation, we’re going to tell you what our belief is and you get to make your choice, but we’ll not force you into any belief…,” Barton said during the interview with Beck. “That’s what the courts pointed to as one of the chief characteristics that we were, indeed, a Christian nation because other types of nations do not give you that choice….”

In other instances, Barton plays fast and loose with facts. In a now discredited book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, Barton claimed that Jefferson was a devout, orthodox Christian. Scholars strongly disagree with this claim, and even Barton was unable to account for Jefferson’s extensive writings in which he expressed his disbelief in core Christian doctrines like the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity and the resurrection. Barton’s explanation? Late in life, Jefferson fell under the sway of preachers in central Virginia who held unorthodox views.

The problem with Barton’s myth­ology is it emboldens fundamentalists who wish to force their dogma on others. A recent example concerns Pastor Randy Pfaff of Cowboy Church at the Crossroads in Colorado, who has been accused preaching to students at Florence High School.

Among the accusations in a lawsuit: Pfaff hosts Christian prayer at the school in a room explicitly allocated to him, and the prayer sessions occur during lunch periods, a custom students nicknamed “Jesus Pizza” due to the program’s sectarian nature and the fact that Pfaff serves pizzas to students. In response to the allegations  Pfaff was dismissive, citing bogus history as justification for his actions.

“I don’t believe the Constitution was meant to keep God out of the schools,” Pfaff told the Denver Post. “That’s absolutely absurd. This nation was founded on Christianity.”

It is likely that Religious Right myths about the founding of America will persist for quite some time, at least partly in response to mounting evidence that the United States is becoming less Christian. As reported in May, the Pew Research Center’s latest Religious Landscape Study found that roughly 56 million Americans now identify as agnostic, atheist or “nothing in particular.” That’s more than 22 percent of the population, and represents a jump of almost 7 percent from Pew’s last survey.

And while the “nones” recently gained in number, Christianity has mostly seen a decline in the United States over the same period. The faith still comprises 70 percent of the population, but mainline traditions – including the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – are down sharply. According to Pew, these churches lost anywhere from 3 million to 7.3 million members from 2007-2014.

Thus the “Christian nation” myth­ology lives on, even among some who seek the highest elected office in the United States. In a 2014 column for The Washington Times, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a rising Religious Right star who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, told his own, mostly inaccurate, version of Frank­lin’s supposed saving of the Constitutional Convention through prayer.

“At [Franklin’s] suggestion, they knelt and prayed, and then went on to put together a 16-page document known as the Constitution of United States, which is one of the most admired documents in history,” Carson wrote. “From that point forward, congressional sessions were started with prayer.”

The philosopher George Santayana famously observed in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Barton, Carson and their Religious Right allies have put their own spin on this: Those who do not like the past are encouraged to rewrite it.